Award-winning journalist Wil S. Hylton has contributed stories to the New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Esquire, Rolling Stone and other national periodicals. His previous assignments involved some interesting physical challenges, but his new book, Vanished: The Sixty-Year Search for the Missing Men of World War II, offered him the storyteller’s task of rigorously and accurately bringing to life the exploits of a team of modern-day sleuths hell-bent on tracking down the remains of World War II MIAs from the Pacific Ocean theater.
The story begins with an old trunk passed down to a Texan named Tommy Doyle, whose father Jimmie was reported missing in the South Pacific when the B-24 bomber on which he served was shot down by Japanese anti-aircraft fire. Doyle senior, it turns out, was but one of many Navy fliers whose whereabouts—and ultimate fate—remained unaccounted for. Enter Pat Scannon, a medical doctor but also a man of varied other talents and with a dogged curiosity about the events of WWII. In the early ’90s, Scannon and other researchers gained notoriety when they located a sunken Japanese trawler downed by Navy flier George H.W. Bush in July 1944. Scannon’s subsequent research into military records and his investigations into the fighting around the Palau barrier reef have led to the salvaging of many downed U.S. warplanes, not to mention the physical remains of MIAs whose families had grieved uncertainly for decades.
Much of this volume concerns itself with the underwater archaeology relevant to a bomber, the 453, that disappeared over Palau carrying 11 men on September 1, 1944. While Scannon is the story’s major player, there are other amazingly determined and dedicated men and women—scientists, military personnel, divers, archivists, historians, plus local island inhabitants drawing from their eyewitness memories of actual events—without whom the many clues might never have been precisely collected.
Besides the many-angled aspects of the seemingly impossible search and recovery missions, Hylton’s narrative covers the broader historical perspective via useful material concerning the military background to the war in the Pacific. He also gives poignant insights into the families of the missing men, some of whom ultimately found a certain closure that had once seemed unattainable.